Interview: Shalom Auslander
We meet a strictly Orthodox-raised rebel with an astonishing ability to create humour out of the darkest material.
Auslander: 'Religion is the greatest manifestation of ludicrous hope'
When I started Shalom Auslander's Hope: a Tragedy (reviewed in the JC of February 10), I suggested my wife try his previous book, Foreskin's Lament. A mistake. As she read, she laughed so often and so loudly that I had trouble concentrating.
Foreskin is an account of his revolt against his strictly Orthodox upbringing in Monsey, New York. In Hope, his debut novel, he turns his acid humour on the pieties of "never again" and other attempts at moralising from the Holocaust. His hero, Solomon Kugel, moves his family out of New York for a quieter life in the country, only to be disturbed by his Shoah-obsessed mother and the discovery of a recluse in the attic - a decrepit Anne Frank. The result is rather like driving a herd of sacred cows through a minefield.
"Somebody said sacred cows make the best burgers," he says. "It's not just for the sake of chopping them. The interesting thing is what you find inside when you do that. Certain subjects become things we're not allowed to talk about, whether it's God or history or Anne Frank or sex…
"I find when you do, it's not a question of destroying them, it's a question in many ways, oddly, of saving them from the control that others have over them."
In the earlier drafts of the book, it was Kugel's mother whose Holocaust phobia led her to hide in the attic. When Auslander told his wife he had hit on the idea of introducing Anne Frank, "she reacted as she usually does - with laughter and telling me there's something very wrong with me."
We say Never again and hope we learn, but we do it again - and more violently
The outlandish conceit - which he concedes probably only a Jewish writer could have got away with - enables him to interrogate what history "does to us in the present. I would think that subject is something everybody not just could write about, but should." An African-American author might have written about "finding Martin Luther King Junior in his basement, or Malcolm X…"
What bug him most are the delusions of optimism. "For me, the much bigger sacred cow is about hope as an idea. Is hope good or bad? We're always supposed to have it, we never question it, every novel has to end with it."
When I mention that, for Chief Rabbi Sacks, hope is one of the definitive features of faith, he says, "it doesn't surprise me… Religion is perhaps the greatest manifestation of ludicrous hope. We've never heard from the guy [he means God], we haven't seen anything from him, he doesn't come down and talk to anybody.
"We're hoping that he's keeping score, that he happens to like us in particular over everybody else, that if we do good things, we are going to get good stuff, that if we pray, he will forgive us, and that there's a great life after this when you don't just go into some void. There couldn't be anything more hopeful than that because it is based on nothing."
At one point in the book, the thought occurs to Kugel, forever trying to think of an appropriate epitaph, that "If you get out laughing, you win." Which might sum up, if anything could, his creator's outlook. The book is not about making fun of the Holocaust, but the fact that genocide, "happens again and again and, each time it does, we say 'Never again' and we hope we're going to become better people and learn a lesson and - what happens? - we do it again and usually more violently.
"The next one will be even worse than this one, we all know that. That's what's funny, to laugh at us as creatures, from God's point of view looking down and going: 'They just do it over and over again, don't they? They step on the banana peel and they get up and brush themselves off and step on the next one.'"
He has had no contact with his parents for years since the birth of the first of his three children. His artist wife Orli, from a London Sephardi family, is also a refugee from Orthodoxy. Will his in-laws come to see him at Jewish Book Week?
"I would doubt it," he says. "I am not sure that they are there any more; they might be. I think they spend a lot of time in Israel, pretending we don't exist. But if they do show up, "you'll know it - listen for the gunfire."
Shalom Auslander will take part in 'Six-Word Memoirs' at Jewish Book Week tomorrow evening at 9.30 and will discuss 'Hope: a Tragedy' (which is published by Picador at £16.99) with Bidisha on Sunday at 12.30pm